An Irishman's Diary

 

One hundred years ago the Anglo-Boer War, which began in October 1899, was making headlines for British and Irish readers. The conflict became the stuff of legend; for men who never opened a history book the names Kimberly, Mafeking and Ladysmith evoked enchanting images of a sunlit veldt and of a heroic struggle by the Boers, outnumbered by the forces of the British army.

When I was a boy growing up in the little fields of east Galway the family sheepdog was often referred to as Kruger, like calling a Scotsman "Jock" or an Irishman "Paddy". Only years later I discovered that it was a reference to the bearded, craggy Boer leader, one of a band of voortrekkers who set out from the Cape across the Orange and Vaal rivers into new territory where they could govern themselves. The Transvaal Republic was soon to become the richest state in South Africa.

Gold rush

Now almost as legendary as the war in Troy, the Boer War had its root cause in the discovery of gold in Johannesburg. The gold rush followed. New immigrants from Britain, the Uitlanders, soon outnumbered the original settlers. It was President Kruger's refusal to grant them civic rights that precipitated the conflict. The Boers, mainly weather-beaten farmers wearing bush hats, went on the offensive and drove 10,000 British infantry into retreat at Ladysmith. Over the Christmas of 1900 the tin-roofed town of Ladysmith lay surrounded, like King Priam's Troy, by Boer guns raining shells the besieged citizens. Since the previous October troops from the various regiments in Ireland had been mobilised and inspected.

Boyle Military Barracks, once the townhouse of the Earl of Kingston, was the headquarters of the 4th Battalion of the Connacht Rangers, founded by the Earl of Clanricarde in 1793. So reckless was their headlong rush into battle that they became known as "The Devil's Own". Over the 129 years of their regimental life they fought wherever there was outbreak of war in the Empire. The famous Duke of Wellington once said of these rugged men of the west: "Whenever anything very gallant or very desperate is to be done there is no corps in the army I would sooner employ than the Connacht Rangers."

Private James Mc Guire of the 1st Connacht Rangers, was one of a number of young men from Boyle Barracks to be called up for the draft to South Africa. A letter, written in a beautiful hand to his parents from Pietemaritzburg, the capital of Natal, is a gem for the historian of the period. The town lies in a beautiful bowl surrounded by green hills; it is rich in associations with the past and its old churches contain memorials to the famous British regiments stationed there, including the Roberts window in memory of the only son of General Roberts who later commanded the British forces in the War.

Action

A bout of fever, Ranger McGuire writes, has prevented him from going to the front, but he is looking forward to some action and anxious for "a crack at the Boers". "Every day we have a lot coming down from the front wounded and sick. Our forces are advancing well the past few days and doing excellent work. I expect Ladysmith will be relieved by the 10 Feb. So that by the time this letter arrives we will have a complete victory."

Among the horrors of the battles that attended the slow progress of Buller's relief force was the January engagement at Spion Kop south of the Tugela River. On the top of this notorious hill, on less than an acre of ground, the two armies fought in close combat ending in a humiliating defeat for the British. Let the reporter of the Morning Star, the young Winston Churchill describe the scene in his own inimitable way. He had climbed to the summit to see for himself.

"Corpses lay here and there. The splinters and fragments of shells had torn and mutilated in the most ghastly manner. Men were staggering along alone or supported by comrades or crawling on hands and knees." After 24 hours Spion Kop was left to the dead and dying of both sides. The British had lost 1500 lives.

Beleagured

Sir Redivers Buller's relief force reached Ladysmith, where for four months the beleagured garrison had suffered untold privation, on February 28th. Some 3,000 died in its defence and relief. It cost the Irish 500 lives and among those are the names inscribed on the Fusiliers' Arch at St Stephen's Green. "My Brave Irish," said Queen Victoria when she heard the news.

Private James McGuire was one of the lucky ones. Military records show that he survived the controversial three-year war. Boyle Barrracks, from where he set out 100 years ago, has also survived. It is now called King House after the landed magnate who built it.

It stands imposingly, dominating the town, great windows facing the river, and through the efforts of a local conservation group and the good offices of a former County Manager it is now fully restored and in use as the town's heritage centre. Inside, a special place is reserved for the history of the famous regiment and in memory of the Connacht Rangers, the fighting men of Connacht.